How to Avoid Greenwashing in Your Eco-friendly Marketing
In the past five years, demand for sustainable business practices has increased by 71%, and it has kept growing throughout the pandemic. Gen Z consumers in particular value sustainable products more than any generation before them, so they pay close attention to the ways in which companies choose to market their sustainable practices.
Getting it right can make or break your reputation, so I’ll take you through eco-friendly marketing best practices in this article. I’ll break down the ways in which green marketing is different from greenwashing, and how you can avoid it.
Before we deep dive into the do’s and don’ts of eco-friendly marketing strategies, let’s figure out what greenwashing is and why it’s important to stay away from it.
What is greenwashing?
It’s a nuanced concept and it can often be hard to tell if a company is engaging in greenwashing or not. Simply put,
Consumers are becoming more aware of the impact that their purchases have on the environment. Even people who wouldn’t normally be willing to change their habits can be swayed by the promise of an easily accessible eco-friendly alternative. From social media users and online activist groups to celebrities and government officials—the world has been outspoken about the climate crisis.
The wealth of accessible information has made people hyper-aware of their own responsibility, and many companies have tried to capitalize on that awareness. In some cases, companies have accidentally or intentionally misled their customers by advertising their products as eco-friendly without any real justification. But engaging in blatant greenwashing practices can land you in significant legal trouble, so more on that later.
For now, let’s take a look at greenwashing examples spotted in the wild.
What does greenwashing look like?
Greenwashing comes in many shapes and sizes, from makeup products being labeled as “clean” to a t-shirt tag having “conscious” written on it in a minimalist font. But green packaging with some leaves on it isn’t necessarily the most egregious example of greenwashing and few companies have come under fire for what can be considered an innocent design choice.
Instead, let’s go through some undeniable examples of greenwashing and why they’re harmful.
Here is some packaging by a Korean skincare brand that made the rounds on the internet about a year ago. Customers and the general public alike were disappointed by this choice since it felt purposefully deceptive. The company defended the message by saying that both the paper and plastic parts of the bottle were recyclable, but there were no recycling instructions on the packaging.
This new drink was introduced in 2013 and got some significant backlash after people started pointing out that the sweetener was in no way more “natural” than regular sugar. Instead, the lower-calorie alternative had green labels to create an association with health and nature, despite still being a soda.
Carbon offsetting compensates for emissions through projects that help fight climate change, so engaging in carbon offsetting isn’t inherently a greenwashing practice. But an oil company choosing to market its operations as “carbon neutral” stirred up significant controversy and even some legal trouble. Emissions are not erased through funding alternative projects and initiatives, so this was a message to investors more than anything else.
The bottom line is, you can’t just slap “eco” or “sustainable” on your products and hope that nobody will ask questions. Customers have become more educated about sustainability topics, and they’ll be able to tell if your green marketing is data-backed or not.
This means that greenwashing (intentional or not) can have the exact opposite effect of what your marketing strategy may be aiming for. Positioning your products as sustainable may seem like the perfect way to connect with environmentally-conscious consumers, but by overselling the environmental value you risk alienating them by betraying their trust.
The risks of greenwashing
Greenwashing isn’t just poor marketing, there’s so much more to it. Green marketing gone wrong can damage your brand and reputation long term, and even get you in legal trouble.
Damaging your brand
Greenwashing misleads your customers; it makes them think they’re doing something good for the environment, while in fact, they aren’t. At Printful, we stand for honesty and transparency, so we encourage our customers to do the same in their ecommerce endeavors.
Trust is difficult to build up and easy to lose, especially as a brand. If your green marketing campaigns are genuine and backed by data, it will contribute to your brand being more trustworthy. But as soon as your customers see reasons for being suspicious, you risk damaging your brand reputation for good.
Greenwashing is illegal under most legislation. In the US, it’s monitored by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Greenwashing is rarely as obvious as the examples we discussed but the FTC has punished and publicly condemned many eco-friendly marketing wrongdoers, especially in the more egregious cases.
To help companies avoid public shaming, the FTC has created a summary of guidelines for eco-friendly marketing. It’s not a comprehensive list, but you can consult it to avoid saying the wrong thing.
Succeeding at eco-friendly marketing
I’ll break it down for you and give some examples of how to market your eco-friendly products without ending up on the FTC’s shame list.
Mind your language
As we saw from the examples before, it matters how you communicate with your customers. In this section, let’s take a look at how you can polish your language to avoid greenwashing and make sure your eco-friendly marketing efforts are clearly communicated.
“Organic”, “100% recycled”, “recyclable”, “environmentally friendly” and similarly green words sound wonderful. They make customers feel as if they’re doing a good deed for the planet. Unfortunately, more often than not, they’re just buzzwords. It doesn’t mean that you can never use them in green marketing, just be careful about it.
“Green” terminology is just a bunch of vague statements unless you have the data to back them up. If you market your products as eco-friendly, organic, or recycled, you need to show your customers how your product is environmentally friendly. Is it made from green materials that have appropriate certification? Is the manufacturing process sustainable? Does your brand use environmentally friendly packaging? This context is what matters to eco-conscious customers.
However, there’s no one universal definition of what being eco-friendly means. And unfortunately, nothing is 100% eco-friendly or sustainable. Whether you run an online store selling custom mugs or live in the middle of nowhere growing cucumbers, you still create waste. That’s the reality of being human.
Define what eco-friendly means for your brand
If you’re going to be engaging in eco-friendly marketing, you need to set some ground rules first. To avoid misleading your customers and keep your conscience clear, it’s important to understand what being eco-friendly means for your business.
For inspiration, you can borrow Printful’s approach—our eco-friendly product collection consists of items that are made of at least 30% sustainable, recycled, or biodegradable materials. Our team is also looking into raising the threshold for products to be considered eco-friendly.
Let’s take a look at an example of how to include that in your product descriptions. Here’s how Printful’s Organic Crop Top is described:
Alongside the fun product description and technicalities, you can find the material (organic cotton), the contents (in this case, 100%), and an easily downloadable eco-friendly product certificate issued by OEKO-TEX®.
Review your SEO
When it comes to digital marketing, SEO plays an important role in driving organic traffic to your store. Google likes all the trendiest, greenest sustainability keywords out there (the buzzwords we talked about before), but using them too liberally can come off as greenwashing.
So handle your eco-friendly marketing with care: pick the keywords that are true to your brand. Don’t say “I sell ethical products” just because Google likes it. Catering to SEO needs can get you in trouble, so stay true to your brand and prioritize transparency.
Use digital marketing to highlight what your brand is genuinely good at and which green initiatives you’re proud of. Then figure out which search terms make sense for you and build your green marketing strategy around them, instead of just going for what’s popular.
Use third-party certification
Whenever you use any “green” words in your eco-friendly marketing efforts, make sure you provide proof to back them up. For example, if you call something “certified organic”, make sure that you have the certificates linked in your product descriptions.
There are companies that, instead of getting third-party certification, create their own eco-friendly labels that often say “100% natural”, “eco-friendly”, “organic”, etc. Some may even create their own certification program to be able to have a certified symbol on their label.
But certifying yourself defeats the purpose of the certification—you can say anything you want about your product, so you need third-party certification for it to be reliable. It’s a business strategy that is intentionally based in deception.
Here’s a brief comparison to help you grasp the concept of fake vs. legit labels. Keep in mind that there are more labels out there, especially fake ones.
Getting a certificate isn’t easy; there are numerous criteria that have to be met, depending on what kind of certificate you’re going for. An auditor may visit your manufacturing center to see if your claims are true, and only then could you hope to receive a legit third-party certificate. It can become a very time-consuming process, but is well worth it.
The good news is, Printful products already come with third-party certifications that are legit and ready to use on your website. We’ve done the hard part so you just have to include the certificates in your product descriptions.
Communicate your sustainability efforts
Create a separate page
Your job as a seller is to provide transparency and make it easier for the customers to access the sustainability-related information they’re looking for. We recommend summarizing your sustainability efforts on a separate page.
If you need inspiration on how to structure or communicate your efforts, you can check out Printful’s sustainability and responsibility page. And if you’re selling Printful products, you can incorporate Printful’s sustainability practices into your brand messaging.
Jot down your plans for the future
In sustainability, nobody’s perfect. But we can all do something to move toward a greener planet. There is no better time than today to start communicating your sustainability practices, no matter if you’re an experienced seller or just starting out.
Your green marketing strategy
Ready to improve your eco-friendly practices? A good place to start is by offering more green products with appropriate eco-labels. Printful currently offers 35 eco-friendly products, so if you’re looking to sell certified environmentally friendly products without worrying about how legitimate the sourcing information is, make sure to check them out.
Not slipping into greenwashing is important and fairly easy, as long as you know what to look out for and stay honest with your customers.